Attention Span


This week for my final blog on a topic within the field of attention I would like to discuss it’s span; how long we humans can focus on a task without distraction. It has been argued (I have not found scientific evidence) that the majority of healthy teenagers and adults cannot sustain attention on one thing for more than forty minutes without a break. We can renew our attention e.g. with long movies, but after forty minutes we are much quicker to leave the current task and grasp another train of thought that takes our fancy. It is also suggested that our attention span is longer for tasks we enjoy and are intrinsically motivated to complete; therefore transforming the education system into something it’s pupils can enjoy and want to succeed at seems imperative.

Studies of attention span are not only concerned with how we can re-apply ourselves to a specific task or material, but how our attention can influence our learning. Bosse and Valdois (2009) explored how reading performance is modulated by visual attention (VA) span; children require an attention span capable of, say, processing every letter in a long word. Orthographic knowledge relies on VA abilities and this relationship further explains the academic performance of those with attention deficit disorders. Early in the semester I took interest in Alec’s Blog and his focus on the effect of television on children; I was a keen follower of Sesame Street as a child and wanted to know more about the cost and benefits of a media medium we use to death. Christakis, Zimmerman, DiGiuseppe and McCarty (2004) explored the effects of television exposure for one-to-three year olds on their attention in later life. They found that early exposure to television was associated with attention problems whilst controlling for factors like prenatal drug abuse, socioeconomic status and a number of other possible confounding variables. Whilst the researchers standard for attention problems was not necessarily correlated with clinically diagnosed ADHD and there are no studies linking early television viewing and ADHD, the study suggests that limiting television exposure in young children is prudent with other factors such as obesity and violent behaviour being taken into account.

Since studying neuroplasticity in more depth and reporting the positive effects meditation, physical exercise and music can have on its development; it has only solidified my view that engaging in mentally stimulating tasks improves our brain health. The experiment of Malcarne (1793) using animals brain dissections to research the state of the nervous system revealed that a subject’s cerebellum grew substantially larger with training compared to controls confirmed the concept of a plastic, fluid and non-fixed cognition system. In developed and modern developing countries Internet use is astoundingly high, as students we use it everyday for tasks such as this blog. Whilst the web is used for so many aspects of life e.g. social networking, shopping and information, we have not considered whether there is a cost to this rapid access if information. Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves To Death, argues that modern advances like television and the internet are decreasing our attention span. Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer (2008) explored the influence of Internet experience on brain activation in an effort to answer questions posed by individuals like Postman. Whilst the study fails to elucidate the positive and negative aspects of regular internet searching, it does show a significant difference in neural pathways of internet users and their counterparts in both book reading and internet search tasks.

In previous blogs I have argued that attention is a skill to be sharpened; this has been expressed somewhat in the work of Binder, Haughton and Van Eyk (1990) who explored the effectiveness of teachers creating bespoke learning environments based on a child’s attention span, with a focus on those with deficits. This research found that fluency of a topic or skill predicts how long the student will endure it; practice periods should increase as the subject makes advances, the researchers highlighted the importance of reducing task time to measure peak performance and keep students engaged.

Despite the eclectic nature of this blog’s research, I think I have addressed some issues faced in area of attention span; attention is limited (as Kahneman argued), we can train this skill to last longer and to some degree, activities that require a more sedentary approach e.g. television and the internet have an effect on such a skill. Whether that effect is positive or negative is subject to further research and dismantling attention into smaller subsections of study. What is clear (congruent with my previous blogs on attention) is that what we do with our brains predicts what we are able to do; the more we do, the more we can do. Attention is vital for our everyday experience; our ability to enjoy this experience and feel relatively in control (not propelled by extrinsic forces) shapes our performance and wellbeing.  Our ability to not only pay attention to our experience effectively but our reactions to that experience are vital for emotional and attentional regulation, a skill that we should hold in high esteem and impress upon children who need it most.


Binder, C, V., Haughton, E., & Van Eyk, D. (1990). Increasing endurance by building fluency; Precision teaching attention span. Teaching exceptional children, 22(3), 24-27.

Bosse, M. & Valdois, S. (2009). Influence of the visual attention span on child reading performance:
a cross-sectional study. Journal of Research in Reading, 32, (2), pp 230–253. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2008.01387.x

Christakis, D, A., Zimmerman, F, J., DiGiuseppe, D, L. & McCarty, C, A. (2004). Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children. PEDIATRICS Vol. 113 (4) p 708

Small, G, W., Moody, T, D., Siddarth, P. & Bookheimer, S, Y. (2009). Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry; 17:116–126





10 thoughts on “Attention Span

  1. Attention is something in which I think we need to focus on more. I find it interesting how we know so much about our attention span, such as how attention can influence ur learning and we cannot sustain attention for more than 40 minutes without a break, and yet we continue to use lectures as a main learning method within university. If a lecture s two hours long then we are not going to be able to attend to all of it. Trenaman (in Mcleish, 1968) found that students assimilate less information after 15 minutes, and after 30 forget what was previously learnt or fail to lean any more information. Therefore in a typical lecture only 25% will be remembered. Also Johnson & Calhoun (1969) found that student tend to forget content within the middle of a lecture, this is usually where the main content is. Overall, it is best to ensure that students are given breaks in order to ensure they can attend to the entire lecture. The Economics Network suggests that student be given a “pause of reflection” where student can look over notes related to the lecture. Therefore students remain focused on learning but have a chance to have a breather.


    The Economics Network (n.d.). Use of breaks in lecture. Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

    Mcleish, J. (1968). The Lecture Method. Cambridge Monographs on Teaching Methods No. 1 Cambridge Institute of Education

    Johnston, J. O., & Calhoun. (1969). The serial position effect in lecture material. Journal of Educational Research, 62(6), 255 – 258

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, particularly the ADHD part as I myself did a topic blog on this a few weeks back (insert link). Therefore, I just want to discuss with you the question: can attention itself be trained (with reference to ADHD children)? If we train attention in ADHD children we may finally come away from resorting to medication for children who may be able to adapt with other techniques.

    Attention Training (ATT) is based on the concept that efficiency increases after repetitive practice of certain cognitive operations of attention (Posner & Raichle, 1994) This concept began in the field of cognitive rehabilitation where Attention Process Training (APT) where tasks such as listening for descending number sequences and visual cancellation were used in order to activate and train sustained, alternating and shared attention. Thus, since ADHD is naturally a disorder of attention, ATT has been considered as a possible non-pharmacological alternative to treatment, which I think is a lot more effective that stimulant medication that we see being prescribed in today’s society.

    There have been so many research experiments conducted in this area that I won’t be giving an in depth comment on them but simply stating that if we look at the work done by psychologists and teacher intervention using ATT it is evident that there is significant support for the notion that adaptive training of executive function skills and sustained attention skills may positively impact the developing attention skills of children with ADHD. It was Kerns, Eso and Thomson (2010) who concluded nicely saying that, direct interventions which aim at improving attention may be a valuable treatment option for improving cognitive efficiency in children with ADHD but still need further investigation.


    Kerns, K. A., Eso, K., & Thomson, J. (1999). Investigation of a direct intervention for improving attention in young children with ADHD. Developmental neuropsychology, 16(2), 273-295.

    Posner,M. I., &Raichle,M. E. (1994). Images ofMind: Scientific America Books.

  3. You bring up some interesting research. I have had many friends who have been diagnosed with ADHD and are on prescription or receive special treatment, however at the end of the day, most of us are very distracted and as you said we can only concentrate for roughly 40 minutes. So why then are classes and lectures 1 – 2 hours..way beyond our maximum attention span time. This research could be applied more to education, in fact it should me explored more by educators. Making students spend more than 40 minutes on a particular task without a break seems absurd to me.

  4. I think that your blog raised some important points, but looking at things from a different perspective…do we need to have such a long attention span anymore? In these modern times, there is no need to sit there and listen to 2 and 3 hour lectures. We have access to so much technology that the requirement for spending hours writing out a 2500 word essay is redundant. This paper (Gartland, 2004) explores the use of all forms of technology to enable individuals with cognitive deficits from acquired brain injury to function ‘normally’. For instance, technology can provide easy opportunities for frequent practice and expansion of ideas, and can act as memory joggers. The thing is, that people without cognitive deficits also have access to this technology, so it’s not a massive jump to assume that it will help them function at a faster, higher level. Maybe the problem isn’t a lack of attention? Maybe it’s just that the technology we have access to is not being correctly utilized? The first modern car was invented in 1886, and we have adapted to use automotive transport so much so, that it’s now common place, it doesn’t mean that our ability to walk has become a problem…it just means that we have adapted. I’m just trying to think outside the box a bit and look at something form a new perspective ☺.


    Gartland, D. (2004). Considerations in the selection and use of technology with people who have cognitive deficits following acquired brain injusry. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation: An International Journal, 14(1,2), 61-75.

  5. You raise some great point about attention and how it affects students ability to pay attention during lectures. Some evidence was found that in adults development of attention is sensitive to education, however, during childhood attention develops faster (Gomes-Perez et al, 2005). This goes along with findings from other researches who argued that educational intervention which take place during the development of a child interfere in developing executive attention networks besides the strong genetic control (Rueda et al., 2005). This might be why Sesame Street has been suggested to impact attention span in children. Further investigation into the split-attention effect, the enhancement of learning through verbal information and pictures, show that increases of cognitive load of both germane and extraneous load mediate such an effect (Cierniak et al., 2009). This probably implies that more visual aids should be applied in teaching and there is a possible relation toward attention span.

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